Monday, March 28, 2005

Socially engaged but not political?

I'm going to attempt to extend a theme here that may not be a perfect fit. I have mentioned here my discomfort at both the "spiritual but not religious" concept as well as with supercessionary rhetoric with regards to the relationship between Christianity and contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

I have made some veiled critical references of attempts at
anti-politics previously, but feel some need to respond to at least part of ChaliceChick's strategic suggestions for Unitarian Universalism. She argues "Shift the focus from 'politics' to 'charity work.'"

I felt compelled to reply: "When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist." Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife.

We can no more jettison our UU heritage as social reformers than jettison our Christian heritage, even if we are neither Christians nor social justice activists. It too is part of the DNA of Unitarian Universalism.

A number UU's around the age of my parents seem somewhat attached to being something entirely new and detached from the Christian taint of their previous faith. Meanwhile, namy UU's closer to my age want to distance themselves from perceived embarassing excesses of the sixties (sometimes called the Kumbaya factor). Many UU's younger than me but older than my stepson seem to be more hard core in their activism and spirituality, oganizing worship services and getting arrested at the School of the Americas or the WTO.

I asked a question about Tillich earlier on this blog. While there are many ways to do this, I would like to reflect on his concept of "ultimate concern" in this context.

Two Concepts of Religion

Dr. Tillich: I thank you very much. I think we now have in view those principles which are especially important for our discussion. Of course there are many other problems, but I believe these are the most important. Perhaps I may formulate the matter in a slightly different way at one point, since it is so fundamental to the whole seminar.

Behind this system, as has been implied, are two concepts of religion. And this fact is so fundamental that, although we shall need to discuss it more fully, an over-all comment should be made here: If religion is defined as a state of "being grasped by an ultimate concern" — which is also my definition of faith — then we must distinguish this as a universal or large concept from our usual smaller concept of religion which supposes an organized group with its clergy, scriptures, and dogma, by which a set of symbols for the ultimate concern is accepted and cultivated in life and thought. This is religion in the narrower sense of the word, while religion defined as "ultimate concern" is religion in the larger sense of the word. The distinction of the larger concept provides us with a criterion by which to judge the concrete religions included under the smaller, traditional concept. Specific religions are inherently susceptible to criticism which keeps them alive or condemns them to come to an end, if they cannot qualify under the power of this ultimate principle.

I have been influenced by a reading of ultimate concern that looks at ultimate and concern as two components of a whole. (Though I sometimes use the terms ultimacy and intimacy instead of ultimate concern) In Tillich's terms, the ultimate can be thought of in terms of the ontological relationship to the ground of being. This is sometimes referred to as the vertical dimension of faith, the connection to the divine or the relationship to one's own finitude. Concern can be viewed as a horizontal dimension of faith, involved in the present and engaged in the current context.

Tillich uses the words profanization and demonization to describe the distortions of these dimensions. Demonization is the term for when the concrete is mistaken for the ultimate. Tillich describes fascism as demonized nationalism, communism as demonized socialism, scientism as demonized humanism, and the inquisition church as a demonized form of Christianity. Profanization is the mistaking of the ultimate as concrete, such as mistaking the practicices of worship for the object of worship.

Dr. Tillich: When the inner difficulties of the social structure produce dissatisfaction in individuals, revolutionary movements in religion or in politics may develop, as happened when the social and religious structure of the pre-Reformation period failed to satisfy large groups of people. Individuals who are especially sensitive to this situation give expression to dissatisfaction and produce new social or religious forms. That is one way in which the two are related — the internal and the external. It is also possible that the individual may withdraw from the whole social situation in which he lives, and either return to earlier forms that still have power or anticipate something new without giving revolutionary expression to it. These are the people in the New Testament who are called "those who are waiting for the salvation of Israel." They were also called "the quiet ones in the land." That is still another possibility. We may choose. Every period has in itself, because of the whole stream of human history, not only negative elements but also positive ones. We can concentrate on these positive elements in order to find the meaning of life for ourselves in spite of the disintegrating social situation, or we can find that meaning in fighting against the disintegration. If we fight, either we founder because the response is not yet strong enough or we produce some kind of reformation (and there are many reformations in the Christian church, not merely the Protestant one). Or, we may simply become cynical and have a good time, repressing the ultimate question so far as possible. And that is the only completely unproductive possibility.

Internal, external, ultimate, concern. I feel it is essential to hold these in dynamic tension and expand on both dimensions of our faith. We do need to take care to avoid demonization and profanization. We must not overly focus on any particular political party, structure, or issue to avoid demonization. ChaliceChick's idea of sticking to charity work is not entirely wrong as a suggestion in this direction. But I take from Camara that we must do more than just treat the symptoms and must address causes.

If we are to build a land where we bind up the broken and the captives go free, we must sometims work on a scale larger than individuals. We must address structurs and we must create what James Luther Adams calls "mediating structures" that confront the structures of injustice. George Lakey, in his book, Powerful Peacemaking:Strategies for a Living Revolution, says that progressives have this problem of always focusing on the immediate crisis or the eventual utopia. He argues that we must aim somewhere in between. JLA's view of liberal religious communities as mediating structures gives us a model to play just this role.


At 2:59 PM, Blogger Chalicechick said...

I responded on my blog, but I think you will be disappointed as my concerns are more pragmatic than philisophical and I basically agree with you in spirit.



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